a question of the age
of St. Joseph at the time of his death. I gave him an estimation, but
afterwards I was prompted,
perhaps by my Guardian Angel, to open the book, THE LIFE AND GLORIES OF
SAINT JOSEPH, by Edward H. Thompson, M.A., published by TAN BOOKS. At the same time Phyllis
Schabow of CATHOLIC TREASURES called to
tell me she found some Traditional reading [THE DIVINE FAVORS
GRANTED TO ST. JOSEPH] about the age of St. Joseph, both
sources matching quite closely.
The Age of St. Joseph at the Time of the Espousal to Mary and His Appearance
WE must pause here awhile to give a few words of consideration to the disputed question as to the age of Joseph at the time of his espousals with Mary. Three opinions have been held; one of which would make our Saint far advanced in years. This opinion was accepted by some of the Fathers and ancient ecclesiastical writers, chiefly Greek; and in support of it has been urged the custom prevailing among painters of representing St. Joseph as an aged man, sometimes as almost decrepit. This view has, however, been strongly opposed, not only because it had no other ground to rest upon than the statements of Pseudo-Gospels which were current in the third and fourth centuries, and were coupled with the assertion that Joseph was a widower with many children, an assertion forcibly condemned by St. Jerome and a host of other Fathers and theological writers down to the present times, but also as in itself presenting insuperable difficulties. As we have already observed, these apocryphal writings, while probably recording some true traditionary facts, are entirely devoid of authority, and contain, moreover, much that we naturally reject as both improbable and unbefitting.
In the absence, then, of any authentic document on the point, it is reasonable to have recourse to arguments drawn from suitability and decorum. Now, when the tender age of Mary  at the time of her espousals is considered, and the providential object of that marriage, which was to shield her reputation and to hide for a time the mystery of the Incarnation; to provide her also with a fitting companion and protector, who was to be an aid and a support to her, especially during their flight into Egypt and in all the labors and sufferings which their exile must have entailed; it would seem surprising, not to say incredible, in the absence of any solid proof, to suppose that it pleased God to select for her husband a man weighed down by the burden of years. Again, as regards the evidence to be drawn of Joseph's great age from pictorial representations, we may say that it has become quite valueless ever since patient research has brought to light monuments of much earlier date in the sculptures and paintings of the very first centuries. St. Joseph, the Cavaliere de Rossi tells us, is portrayed in the most ancient marbles and ivories as very young and almost always beardless. Later on, he was given a thick beard and a more mature and even aged appearance. Of the youthful representations he mentions many examples, one of which is even supposed to belong to the sixth century.
However, it was in about the fifth century that the habit of depicting the Saint of, at least, a mature age seems to have commenced. Clearly, then, as De Rossi observes, the most ancient monuments, those of the third and fourth centuries, are so far from following the apocryphal legend that, on the contrary, they picture to us the spouse of the Virgin in the flower of his youth. In the fifth century, when, without peril to the canonicity of the four Gospels, artists might be at liberty, if they pleased, to approximate to some apocryphal traditions, the practice of Christian art to which allusion has been made began to prevail. No argument, then, can be based upon this change; or rather, in the absence of any authoritative document, the tradition of the early Church, as gathered from the monuments of Christian art, is entirely unfavorable to the belief that Joseph was an old man. Thus they furnish support to those reasons to which we have just adverted, drawn from the unsuitability of supposing our Saint to have been far advanced in years at the time of his espousals with the Blessed Virgin.
This notion being set aside, it remains for us to choose between the two other views: that is, whether St. Joseph was as young as he is represented in the early monuments, or whether he had already attained a mature age at the time of his espousals. In the absence of all direct evidence, it would seem that those who have given the subject the fullest consideration, and weighed and compared probabilities, consider that at the time of his marriage with Mary he was, most likely, approaching his fortieth year [the second source cited above says in his mid-30's], and, therefore, of an age which can be reckoned neither young nor old, but in the prime of his strength, whether of mind or body.
Some remarks of Vincenzo de Vit, in his Life of St. Joseph, are, we think, much to the point in this matter. He is speaking of the relative value of arguments drawn from monuments or tradition and those which rest on reasons of suitability, when it is question of a fact the realization of which depends, not on the will of man, but on the will of God, Who disposes events in conformity with His Own designs.
"When it is a question," he says," of a purely human fact, reasons of propriety have not always the same value, either for or against our acceptance of it, as has the testimony of writers; but, in the present case, where it is question of a Divine decree, according to which, as the holy Fathers affirm and the Church holds, the Son of God was to take human flesh in the womb of a married virgin, with the specific object of hiding [as we have said] this miraculous conception, as well as for other reasons which we have mentioned, seeing there is a total absence of all Divine authority regarding the age of her spouse, reasons of propriety ought to take precedence of depositions of human authority, among which we include the testimony of monuments. For here it is no longer question of verifying a fact on the simple witness of historical writers who were not contemporaneous with the events they relate, but of examining whether the fact alleged corresponds with the object which we know to have been predetermined in the counsels of God. For, if once it be shown that the fact alleged is not suited to that object, we are bound to reject it."
Applying this principle to the question before us, it is clear that for its solution we have only to consider what was the end proposed by God, and the adaptation to that end of the means which He thought fit to employ for its accomplishment; namely, a marriage which must be in every respect a most perfect one. Justly has it been said that "when Holy Scripture has in any case recorded nothing regarding the Virgin"-----and the remark applies equally to St. Joseph-----"all that remains to us is to inquire what is most agreeable to reason. Authority which contradicts reason in such cases is no authority at all."
It is, perhaps, not difficult to conceive why painters, in portraying the Holy Family, should have had a bias in favor of increasing the apparent age of St. Joseph as compared with that of the young Mother. It must be borne in mind that it is here no question of actual likeness of either Our Lady, St. Joseph, or the Divine Infant; at most these pictures embody an instinctive Christian tradition, and are figurative of prevailing ideas rather than representations of personal appearance. Now, the primary idea of St. Joseph is that of the guardian, the protector, the support of the Virgin Mother, and this finds its natural expression, under the painter's brush, in a marked difference of age, and that to a greater degree than there is any reason for believing to have existed. Then there is the typical and mystical view. St. Joseph, as putative father of our Lord, represents to us the Person of the Eternal Father, the "Ancient of Days". We know that God is eternally young, or rather that neither youth nor age can be predicated of Him Who is the Self-existing One, the ever-present Now, the I Am. Yet, in our impossibility to represent God as He Is, it is our habit, when desiring to indicate the Person of the Father, to portray Him as a venerable and aged man, thereby figuring, not Himself, but His Paternity. Even so, it seems a matter of course that he who was chosen to be His representative on earth should by analogy be pictorially portrayed in a similar manner, without thereby implying anything as to the actual age of our Saint at the period in question. In conclusion, it may be added that we have also the symbolic view. Gerson suggests it in the poem which he wrote on the holy patriarch. Why was Joseph depicted as old? It was to give us to understand that he possessed the virtues attributed to age: prudence, holiness, and purity of life. For in the Book of Wisdom we read "a spotless life is old age". [Chapter iv. 9]
Should it be objected that in the first three or four centuries a different idea and type was adopted in depicting St. Joseph, and that he was represented as very young, our answer may be gathered from what has already been said. This difference arose most probably from a desire to protest against the apocryphal legends of the Saint's extreme old age. As an argument, against any such view the fact is certainly good, but we must not strain it beyond its apparent object. It would not, therefore, be fair to consider it also as a disproof of what has been the persuasion of later ages and of the present time, namely, that St. Joseph had already attained to mature years, and was near to or not very far short of forty, when he was espoused to our Blessed Lady. The protest of the first centuries was clearly a negative one; it was a protest against the assertion that the spouse of Mary was in the decline of his days; and, as it might be difficult to draw the precise line where maturity approaches to decline, these early sculptors and painters would be led to give to St. Joseph an unmistakable look of youth in order to reject and condemn the fables concerning his advanced age, which, we must remember, included also the denial to him of his aureole of virginity. For those passages in the apocryphal writings which ascribe to Joseph so advanced an age assert also that he was a widower with children, an idea equally repulsive to Catholic feeling and opposed to the tradition of the Church, both East and West, which from St. Jerome to our own day has united in declaring that Joseph, like Mary, was and remained ever a virgin!
Tradition tells us of the surpassing beauty of the Mother of God, but scarcely any record has reached us of the personal appearance of St. Joseph, if we except the testimony of St. Justin Martyr-----followed or corroborated, perhaps from additional sources, by Gerson and other doctors-----that in beauty and in bodily appearance he was most like to our Lord; and this was fitting, in order that no suspicion might be entertained respecting his paternity or the virtue of the Mother of the Divine Child. Whence we may gather that, next to Jesus and Mary, Joseph was the fairest of the children of men. But, apart from such rare intimations, we are left with nothing to draw upon but our own imagination, or what Saints have told us who have beheld him in their visions. Now, although private revelations can never be quoted as authority, we cannot but regard them with great veneration and interest after they have been duly examined and tested; and when, moreover, they happen to fall in with our own reasonable conjectures, we feel that they greatly strengthen and support them. "Whatever of direct Divine communication these so-called private revelations do contain," says a distinguished Oratorian Father of our day, "is the reward and seal of the ascetic and mystic contemplation of the mysteries of faith." That being the case, how could we, apart from the possibility, not to say probability, of their containing this Divine element, fail to set the highest store by them and immeasurably prefer nourishing our devotion with them to indulging in our own unaided fancies? The pictures which Saints and other holy persons present to us are, surely, far more likely to resemble the truth than are such as we can construct for ourselves; and yet, in the ordinary course of meditation on the mysteries of our faith, pictures of some sort we are constrained to form. Sister Maria d' Agreda, whose writings have been marked with high ecclesiastical approval, speaking of Joseph when he was summoned to appear among the descendants of the race of David, that one of them might be selected as the spouse of Mary, says that he was at that time thirty-three years of age, was well-favored in person and of most pleasing aspect, of incomparable modesty and grave in demeanor, and, above all, most pure in act, in thought, and in disposition, having, indeed, from the age of twelve years made a vow of chastity. He was related in the third degree to the Blessed Virgin, and his life had been most pure and holy and irreproachable in the eyes both of God and men! This testimony, valuable on account of the source from which it is derived, is also precious to us as coinciding with our own natural sentiments of suitability and propriety. As we felt to recoil from the idea of a decrepit spouse for the Queen of Heaven, so also is it hardly less repugnant to our notions that he should have been unprepossessing in his appearance. The ancient Joseph, who was the type of our Saint and who even, prophetically, bore his significant name, is described as of "a beautiful countenance and comely to behold". [Gen. xxxix. 6]
Can his prototype have been less personally favored, destined as he was for incomparably higher honor? Sister Emmerich likewise describes St. Joseph as having in his whole person an expression of extreme benignity and readiness to be of service to others. She says he had fair hair. That of the Blessed Virgin, she tells was, was most abundant, and of a rich auburn; her eyebrows dark and arched; her eyes, which had long black lashes, large, but habitually cast down; her features exquisitely modeled; while in height she was about the middle stature, and she bore her attire, which for the Espousals was rich and becoming-----the Sister describes it in elaborate detail-----with much grace and dignity. St. Epiphanius, quoted by Nicephorus, has left us a very similar portrait of the holy Virgin, of whose admirable beauty so many other early Fathers speak. The saying of St. Denis, the Areopagite, who saw her, is well known: that her beauty was so dazzling that he should have adored her as a goddess, if he had not known that there is but one God. From a motive of humility our Blessed Lady would never again wear the robe in which, according to Hebrew custom, she was clad upon that day. The robe was preserved as a precious treasure in Palestine, whence it was sent to Constantinople about the year 461. The ground was of the color of nankeen with flowers blue, white, violet, and gold. It is now the sacred relic of Chartres, having been given by Charles the Bald to the Church there in 877. Many miracles have been attributed to it!
The nuptial ring of the Blessed Virgin is still preserved at Perugia in the Cathedral Church of San Lorenzo. The people of that city and of Chiusi are said to have formerly disputed in arms the possession of this treasure, nor was the difference appeased save by the decision of Sixtus IV, and Innocent VIII. It is related how, in days long past, a certain lady of high rank, named Waldrada, having had the rashness to place this ring on her finger, was punished by its immediately drying up. Others have obtained great graces by reverently honoring the holy relic on the altar where it is kept. The late august Pontiff, Pius IX, when he visited Perugia in 1857, paid public veneration to this ring.
Since Tradition has it that St. Joseph died before Christ's Crucifixion and probably just before His public ministry or soon thereafter, if Jesus was 30 at the commencement of His public life, Saint Joseph would have been in his sixties when he died, based on the above account.